Summer of Bert
Bert Thomas is the first person to swim across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Bert Thomas is also my 2015 summer plans.
Bert Thomas is the first person to swim across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Bert Thomas is also my 2015 summer plans.
“Swimmer fails to cross Strait of Juan de Fuca” is what the AP reported the next day. Swimmer, me. Fails, what I did.
I remember thinking two days later, “today is the first day of my training for next year.” My determination and ambition lasted through the autumn, but something else crept in during that time. Doubt.
This had been my first attempt at planning a swim, and I had, as the press said, failed to complete it. I knew I was in good company in this body of water, with over a hundred other failed attempts on the books, a few people eventually returning for a successful crossing, but that wasn’t much consolation. What would I do differently next year? If I got it wrong the first time, what more did I know now to get it right the second time? As November approached, the thought of repeating a failure terrified me. I needed another plan.
First, I needed to prove that I could handle a big swim. I needed to be certain that I could train for and complete something big, and leave the planning to someone else for a moment. So I signed up for the biggest organized challenge I could find: 8 Bridges. And I completed it.
Second, I needed to prove that I could plan a successful swim. I needed to be sure that my assumptions worked and my preparations were adequate. So the Summer of Bert was hatched, a series of two original swims followed by the Strait, all inspired by the first person to cross the Strait. These first two would be training swims, big, big training swims. Dress rehearsals, if you will.
Third, I needed to prove that I could handle cold water. I needed to be certain that the cold wouldn’t get to me again. So I moved all of my training outside, effective immediately, and trained only in cold water from last summer through the winter to today. For the first training swim, I swam from Tacoma to Seattle in June, I swam in cold water three hours longer than the Strait should take, and I survived.
Finally, I needed to make the Strait look small and insignificant. And how do you make a five to six hour swim look small? Swim twice as long and twice as far. So for the second training swim, I swam around Bainbridge Island, I more than doubled the time I was in the Strait in 2013, and I survived.
And now, I’ve done all that. Now I feel I’m as ready to complete this little swim as I can possibly be. Wholeheartedly, I feel ready. I am ready. This will not be nearly as hard as the last two years.
Last Thursday, I sat on the bench at Alki and stared across the Puget Sound at the sun setting over Bainbridge Island. As I prepared for my last little swim before circling that big island, I couldn’t help but notice that I wasn’t excited. Nervous may be a bit strong to describe my feeling. Terrified certainly is. But as I sat there, the thought of swimming for what I guessed would be twelve hours made me uneasy, given that I hardly wanted to put my suit on and swim that evening.
It was about two months after my last big swim and seven months into my season. The novelty had worn off months ago, but October still looked far away. My biggest fear for the coming weekend was: what if I don’t want to do this? A marathon swim, especially one that pushes your limits, isn’t something you complete half-hearted, and I was indifferent at best.
Erika, seated beside me on the bench, reminded me that I didn’t have to feel excited. And she was right. For it was with that same attitude that I stepped off the beach two mornings later. I stared at the flat water right as a large boat wake rolled in. My instinct told me to wait until the wake passed, but then I remembered that the sooner I start, the sooner I finish. As always, getting in was the hardest part.
The points ahead grew quickly, the shore passed by, the sea lions kept a respectful distance. Friends and swimmers and kayakers from the island came and went, excited to be a part of my adventure. The wind was behind me for most of the day, and the water was warm enough to relax in. “You know those days when it feels like you could stay in the water all day,” I asked Erika during a feed about half-way around? “Well what a good day to have that feeling.”
I never felt excited during the swim, nor before nor after. But I was ready to get started, ready to be finished, and just as ready for all the pieces that were found in between. A very wonderful, calm sort of ready.
And now there is just one more swim left in my summer. Then October.
No surprises on this one. Just once around the island, taking the shortest route we can manage. Point to point to point to point.
This is a 25.5 mile circumnavigation. Thanks again to Google for helping out here.
Looking for more information? Then you may enjoy this .kmz file of the route, waypoints, and some current scouting I did last autumn.
Here it is:
On either the 8th or 9th of August, I’m going to try my longest swim yet. Swimming around Bainbridge, something that has yet to be completed – or even attempted as far as I know – will take between eleven and twelve hours. That’s longer than I’ve ever swum by over two hours.
I’m nervous at the moment. It has been two months since the last big swim, and training has been an experiment ever since then. Do I go hard? Do I back off? Do I even need to swim after work tonight? Do I want to swim after work tonight?
Part of me is ready for October, the month there is no longer anything for which to train. But part of me is very excited for this swim. With all the fatigue, the thing that keeps me swimming is simply that I enjoy it. Many nights while I stall, sitting on my bench at Alki before diving in, I’m reminded of the small, large, and very large joys swimming brings me. It’s a far cry from the view before a pool workout, the dismal, repetitive scenery that affected me so much last year.
Yes, I’m excited for it. For another mental and physical challenge to face, another complicated dance to perform, another day to test both my luck and skill. 25.5 miles around Bainbridge Island doesn’t seem that far to me right now. Not nearly as far as October, anyway.
Please find attached, the Around Bainbridge Island Swim Plan, approved by USCG Vessel Traffic Service Sector Puget Sound and Washington State Ferries.
Here are the highlights of my swim from Tacoma to West Seattle.
Tarin of Bay Patrol told us we’d been left behind by the crew, Xiphius was off the dock heading to the start without Erika, Elaine, and me. They hadn’t forgotten us of course. A moment later I untied Tuesday with Elaine at the helm and we pushed us out into Foss Waterway. “Make sure the throttle is turned down, then pull the lever forward to put it into gear.” She’d never driven a boat before, but she was about to learn. A few minutes later, now an expert, she idled up next to the Xiphius, still underway, and I made up a towing harness to help the crew easily tie-up Tuesday when she wasn’t in use. We clipped in and climbed aboard en route to the start.
Melissa was in the water with me as we made our way west along the Tacoma shore. While we all settled into a rhythm, I kept sighting up ahead. Lots of sails, I noticed. Better put my faith in someone fast, because I’m not getting through this without help. As we neared the sails, it became apparent that the local yacht club was hosting a regatta through which we’d be passing at a crowded turn buoy. The horn blasts from Bay Patrol calmed me down. I took that sound to mean, very clearly, move over – we’re coming through. This is why we brought Tarin.
Owens Beach had gone by; Erika was swimming next to me. “Ready for a little adventure?” I asked. “Sure, that’s why I’m here,” she replied, not knowing exactly what I meant by that. A few strokes later, the water became clear and cold. We drifted apart. Xiphius was now to our right. We drifted back together. Xiphius had gone out of view. Ahead, the Bay Patrol boat slid into our path, or we slid into her wake. Her engine roared to get away from us, the only safe thing she could do. We were all being jostled by the eddies and boils where the Narrows empties into Dalco Passage at about five knots. Disoriented, all we could do was look to the nearest boat and follow where it led us. I was having a wonderful time as my arms and legs steadily propelled me through the swirls.
Suddenly the water flattened out again. The sun told me we’d turned north and I could see Colvos Pass straight ahead, the hills rising on either side. More importantly, the southern tip of Vashon Island was on my right. The smile spreading on my face came from knowing the currents and my crew put me where I needed to be. My predictions, based on mostly conversations in a nautical book store and an atlas that’s been out-of-print since the nineteen-seventies, had worked! The swim now felt possible.
Ahead was Blake Island, the end of Colvos Passage. No wait, I’m told that’s still the top of Vashon. A little later, past the top of Vashon, That’s Blake!? It’s so far. Resigned, a take a few more strokes and then see up ahead but to the left, Blake Island. I had been looking at the hills on the mainland five miles away. Blake Island was actually very close. I could certainly swim that far.
A ferry crosses up ahead moving Sunday travelers west to Southworth. We’re about to cross two of four ferry routes. Before he left, Tarin told Pete: be sure to radio Vessel Traffic when we leave Colvos, which we had now done, but for some reason I was certain this communication hadn’t happened. Then to my right, I could see a ferry heading north. It’s an east-west route, which means this ferry had just gone around us off-course and was returning to the regular route. Well, then I guess they’ve been talking.
Lincoln Park is easy to see from the water. It is a large, green, undeveloped mass among the residential hills of West Seattle. That speck in the middle is Colman Pool, my destination. Three miles away, I look up and see this. When I look up again, it looks the same, no bigger. I’ve never been into counting strokes, but to keep my face in the water I decide not to look up for another hundred strokes. The building is no larger. Now another two hundred strokes. Barely any larger, so three hundred. Now it’s looking bigger. Maybe in another two hundred, I’ll be able to make out some more details..
Wendy had told her staff at Colman Pool that we’d be by today. We walk in, unhassled, and I walk to the far side of the pool, ready to finish this swim properly, the way I planned it. I wait in line behind a small girl as she climbed the ladder, then I do the same. Near the top, I can see Xiphius waiting just off the beach, and I turn give a giant wave to Wendy, still aboard. They made this possible. At the top, I turn away from the beach, grab the handle, and go down the waterslide, splashing out into the warm pool below. My shivering was done, and so was the swim.
In the immortal words of Dave Barra, anything worth doing is worth over doing. This is the 24-page swim plan for today’s swim.
It covers the basics of communication protocol, course description, vessel traffic avoidance, emergency and evacuation procedures, and rules. Thanks again goes to VTS Sector Puget Sound (Seattle) for taking the time to entertain this, and additional thanks to WSDOT Ferrys for doing to same.
Step one: jump in. Step two: turn left and go off course.
The actual route for this swim does not match the shortest route. The shortest route, at 18.8 miles, heads north from the start through the East Passage. My route is over 2.6 miles longer, and goes left around Vashon Island.
Right now, I’m either regretting this decision, or laughing to myself that it is just crazy enough to work. Either way, here’s the logic behind it:
During Bert Thomas’s 1956 swim in the opposite direction, he swam about nine hours before getting stopped by the tide and finally finishing seven hours later. That’ll happen in the East Passage, where the ebb and flood of the Sound creates noticeable currents, and complicated eddies. While it sounds like a complicated, exciting challenge to hop between shores, tuck in behind spits of land to fight the tide and then burst out at the right moment, when one adds in the shipping lanes running through the East Passage, more likely it would become another Tappan Zee incident (see Stage 6) where I’d be constrained to unfavorable water and left to fight it out.
Instead, I’m going to avoid shipping traffic and, if I’m right, the tides altogether.
Now not far west from the start along the shore of Point Defiance, regular swims with Melissa have taught me that the current there always pushes west. And Melissa’s birthday swim taught me that a strong clockwise eddy lies just north in Dalco Pass, midway between Vashon and Tacoma shores. So I’ll ride that current west from the start, heading out to the mouth of the Narrows to meet a ripping ebb tide pushing north into Colvos. This part is a bit of a gamble; if I swim for the Gig Harbor Light fast enough, I should be pushed north into Colvos on the backside of Vashon.
And that is where it gets beautiful. Colvos they say, by some magic of oceanography, always has a north current. So I’m adding a few miles to the swim in hopes of avoiding a seven-hour delay like Bert had.
At the top of Vashon, we’ll ride the current as far north as possible, getting above the ferry lanes and preparing to swim due east against a flood tide pushing south.
ROUTE: The Return of Bert Thomas Swim is an 18.8 mile swim as measured by the shortest straight-line route between the starting and ending points. The start location is Old Town Dock on Ruston Way in Tacomca, WA. The anticipated finish location is between Lincoln Park, West Seattle near Colman Pool and the Fauntleroy Ferry Terminal.
RULES: The swim will follow MSF Rules with no exceptions taken for non-standard equipment.
OBSERVER: The swim will be observed and documented by Dan Robinson, a Triple Crown marathon swimmer (EC 21 Jul 2014, CC 8 Sep 2008, MIMS 24 Jun 2006).
The crew’s job on this swim began a long time ago. The swim hasn’t started yet, and already they’ve done so much to get me here, a week from the start. Even if they don’t realize it, they’re a giant reason I’ve made it this far, and they’ll be the reason I make it much farther. Let me introduce them:
The boat people, pilot and swim manager
One doesn’t swim in Seattle for long without eventually bumping into Wendy Van De Sompele. She’s not only a marathon swimmer herself (need I say, avid open water enthusiast?) and frequent, high-placing participant in Seattle’s abundant open water events, but she also manages the Seattle Parks Department’s Medgar Evers pool in winter and Colman Pool during summer, two highly sought-after training grounds for pool swimmers. We met at a little swim in Tacoma a few years back: she was swimming and her partner Peter Ray was kayaking. Pete has since bought a sailboat, and Wendy has graciously offered their support on this swim. No doubt this is what Pete had in mind when he bought the boat. As Swim Manager, Wendy will be Pete’s right hand with tasks such as Coast Guard communication and navigation, leaving Pete free to pilot his boat.
I don’t need to state the importance of having a qualified observer. Dan Robinson and I met at Alki a while back. At the time, he was training for The Channel (successful), his final swim of the Triple Crown. When our training paths crossed he was good company, as he was one of very few people who had the speed, endurance, and acclimatization to train with me in cold springtime open water as I was ramping up for 8 Bridges last year.
The swim handler
A month after my unsuccessful 2013 Strait attempt, Melissa Nordquist convinced me to swim an event in Tacoma (same as above). Until then, I’d mostly been swimming alone, and it would be a good opportunity to meet some other swimmers. Although we’d never met before, I knew by the end of that swim that we’d be swimming together a lot more often. She and her husband Paul were South End members before moving away from San Francisco, she a swimmer and he a rower. Melissa has since been a willing partner in some great swimming adventures around the Sound, including storm swimming, night swimming, birthday swimming, Halloween costume swimming, pre numb-feet-trail-run swimming, and under-pier skeleton discovery swimming. She’ll be looking after my general wellbeing, preparing some feeds, and splitting tasks with the rest of the group.
Spare parts and deck hands
Observing for Elaine on Pend Oreille last summer, in addition to being a wildly good time, taught me some important lessons about planning a swim. One big lesson learned: bring spares. So I’ve got a spare boat (Tuesday) to drag along with us. And I’ve got two spare people, Elaine Howley and Erika Norris.
Elaine is flying out from Boston to visit, finally. After she traded me Jerome (formerly of L Street and the Nahant Knuckleheads) for Observer Services Rendered last summer, she will at last be visiting us both in Seattle. I’ll be handing her a megaphone and Twitter the morning before the swim, what could go wrong with that?
Erika and I have been swimming together since February. I still can’t quite tell how she’s progressed from so quickly in her cold acclimatization (she’s been joining me for 6k swims in 50 degree water). Whether it comes from some natural sea lion ability or from shear stubbornness, her ability to swim long distances in cold water is amazing. As a regular training buddy, she is probably the single biggest reason I am still sane and smiling at this point in the season.
Coincidentally (or maybe not, I can’t remember at this point), all of the crew (Pete excepted) are active, cold water swimmers, and nearly all my pace. I’m expecting and counting on them to jump in to keep me company and keep me swimming.
Of all the swimmers out there, I’m lucky to have found a set of friends willing to join me in cold water and who are willing to share this adventure, and so many other adventures. I know they’ll make this swim fun, no matter what happens.
My first swim for the year is less than one month away. So what did I do today? I sat on the beach all afternoon and drank beer with swim friends in between rounds of seaweed fights. After swimming five miles, of course.
At the beginning of the season, I knew my training plan needed to be different from last year for two reasons. First, my goals were different; I’m training for several cold saltwater swims rather than a multi-stage river swim. Second, my training last year left me feeling pretty blue most of the time.
My training started at the beginning of last July with the seemingly easiest of tasks: do nothing. What put me in such a bad mood through most of last spring was the absence of an off season, and I was determined to not make that mistake again. My rule was, from July through the beginning of this year, do only 7km per week. No more, no less. This kept me in shape, and made me yearn at times to go farther. Wanting to swim is a talent that needs cultivating.
With the start of the new year, I maintained the maintainable. I took a schedule of 7km per week and made it only marginally harder. The next week was an 8km week, because if I could figure out how to work 7km into my life, surely I could add a bit more without consequence. Then a bit more the week after. And now its a 26km week. To make things more challenging, I’ve been doing all my training in the Puget Sound. Through the rain and short days of winter, lengthening my swims as the days lengthened and the water warmed. Cramming as much distance as I can handle into the weekends with hopes that it will be easy to make time during eleven-hour workdays to get the rest swum before bed on Friday night.
There’s a few other things contributing to my generally good mood and consistent swimming this year. The regular adventure of swimming in open water versus the drudgery of distance pool workouts has kept me excited. There are some days when my first smile happens during my evening workout, and more often on Monday mornings forcing a smile is too much to ask, when I’m contrasting office banalities with my most recent sea lion encounter. More importantly, I’ve found people to join me. Our little group has grown to twenty-plus, and I’ve even had frequent same-pace company during part or all of my swims, weekend and weekday alike.
And that’s how I found myself standing knee deep at low tide today, draped in kelp and sargassum. Just another sunny Saturday morning 8km swim, followed by some lounging and swimming and sunning and drinking and smiling.
Two years ago, a map inspired me to take a swim. That swim has led me on a journey. It isn’t just for the creative, artsy types: inspiration is easy to find if you look for it.
The first person to swim the Strait of Juan de Fuca was Bert Thomas. Two years ago, during the planning of my own Strait attempt, my research kept coming back to Bert. The local papers documented his several failed swims, alongside the attempts of many other legendary swimmers of the 1950s, before finally reporting his success. This Tacoma ex-Marine was being written up alongside the likes of Florence Chadwick and Marilyn Bell, and the world was excited to see who would be the first to complete the crossing.
The rabbit hole of the internet easily turned the story of the Strait into the story of Bert Thomas. What else did he swim? When? How? The papers, probably because of his newfound notoriety, continued to publish his exploits. Months after completing the Strait, Bert attempted an 18.5 mile swim in the Puget Sound in January of 1956. A few months later, he tried again. Then in May, he tried a third time, and successfully swam from Seattle to Tacoma.
It isn’t just his resume that a marathon swimmer finds fascinating about Bert Thomas. The articles about him say more than just “brave” and “courageous” and the like. There’s the mundane, tidbits like his hot feeds and cigarette breaks during a fifteen hour swim. Then there’s the heroic.
In April of 1958, Bert disqualified himself 41 miles into his 45 mile Columbia River swim when he had to push off an errant press boat in order to avoid being run over. A marathon swimmer can appreciate that type of principled view on the sport.
If you want to admire his swimming a bit more, there is this quotation: “The cold doesn’t bother me….I go into the water feet first, a little at a time. That way, it’s not such a shock to the system. The blood cools gradually. Once I get warmed up, I can keep going for hours.” In my opinion, this is the hardest way to get into any water, warm or cold. If nothing else, I can appreciate that he likes doing things the hard way.
And because that’s not enough, in April of 1956, Bert was forced to postpone a swim by twenty hours after a boat in the marina he was departing from caught fire. The swim was postponed because Bert had injured his hand pulling “neighboring boats away from the fiercely burning cabin cruiser.” That’s a pretty badass reason to postpone a swim.
Bert Thomas is my inspiration. This June, I’m going to swim from Tacoma to Seattle. This plan is completely inspired by Bert Thomas’s 1956 swim, the route is the reverse. I want this to be the Return of Bert Thomas, the return of an exciting era of open water swimming to the Pacific Northwest.
And this is just the first of my summer swims. This is my Summer of Bert Thomas.